Samantha Marquez certainly earned her spring break.
During a dizzying few days in March, Marquez, a junior at the Maggie L. Walker Governor’s School in Richmond, had four back-to-back successes with her scientific research.
First, she won the First Grand Prize and was selected Best of Fair at the 2013 Virginia Junior Science and Humanities Symposium, held on March 14 and 15 at James Madison University. That qualifies her for a national competition in Ohio this May.
On March 20, Samantha hit the road for the National American Academy of Neurology Conference in San Diego, Calif., where she received the organization’s 2013 Neuroscience Research Prize. She was one of only four high school students in the country selected for the honor.
A day after her return from the conference, she took first place in Engineering at the Metro Richmond STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math) Fair and was selected as one of four grand winners to represent the region at an International Science Fair in Arizona.
Then Samantha learned she had won the 2013 Virginia BioGENEius Challenge, a biotechnology competition, and has advanced to national competition this month.
The daughter of a chemist and a chemical engineer, Samantha said she has always had an interest in science. It runs in the family. Her 13-year-old sister won first place in the Junior Division of the Metro Richmond STEM Fair.
"It makes for some fun dinner conversation – definitely," Samantha said with a laugh. The family doesn’t discuss sports scores or television shows over meals – they discuss nanoparticles and the dimensions of intangible things, like dreams and music.
Samantha’s areaa of interest are neuroscience and bioengineering.
Much of her research is based on a concept she came up with as a precocious seventh grader reading a paper on a group of scientists’ attempt to create particles that can change.
The scientists who wrote the paper had been experimenting with artificial spherical crystals, but Samantha had the idea to use living cells. That has developed into "celloidosomes," hollow cell structures Samantha invented that could be used for everything from creating tissue and genetic engineering to environmental cleanup.
This year’s projects included a study of how to use brain tissue as a sensor to determine the toxicity of nanoparticles people encounter every day and a study of how to build multicellular structures that act like microorganisms, capturing and isolating radioactive particles left behind by nuclear disasters or dirty bombs.
For Samantha, the fun part about science competitions isn’t trying to win.
"For me, it’s not all about competing. My favorite part is going out and seeing the work other high school students are doing," Samantha said. "We represent the kids who have been very fortunate to have teachers and communities that support us so much along the way."
She also said that students and teachers who attend major competitions and conferences learn new things that they can take home and share in their own communities. She took her old science teacher, Stephanie Estes of Robious Middle School, to the neuroscience conference for that reason. It was Estes, Samantha said, who pushed her to get involved in science fairs in the first place.
Samantha, 17, is considering her college options. Universities including Stanford, Princeton, Harvard, Johns Hopkins and Cambridge are among the candidates.
Why neuroscience? Samantha said her work with celloidosomes led her there.
"It’s such a wide field," she said, noting she plans to work with a mentor at the University of Richmond during her senior year of high school to make sure neuroscience is the right fit for her.
"It’s just a personal curiosity, exploring the brain. It’s the one organ we know very, very little about," Samantha added. "Memory. Dreams, which no one really understands."
Samantha and her sister have worked together to study the effect music has on the brain and how long it lasts.
When she’s not doing research, Samantha said she enjoys traveling, cooking, trying new food and scuba diving. Luckily, her scientific studies have already landed her at conferences in exotic locales like China and Russia.
She said she’s sure she’ll figure out a way to integrate scuba diving into her work – perhaps environmental cleanup applications for her research.